WowMIKEWow’s review published on Letterboxd:
“Is it Dune or Dune?” asked the great mates from the Weekly Planet podcast, and at long last we have our answer.
Despite being a massive sci fi fan, I never actually sat down and read Dune. Kind of like how I’m a fantasy fan, but I never got around to the monster that is the Lord of the Rings trilogy and its multiple appendixes. I also never saw the first movie adaptation they tried to make back in ‘84, despite being a huge David Lynch fan (actually, it might have been because I’m such a fan of his that I never bothered with that flick). So this right here is my first exposure to the world of Dune, with the houses and the spices and the sand worms and the giant floating fat guy. And I’ll say this right off the bat for Villeneuve; he might be the only director working today who could somehow manage to find an artful and evocative way to film the floating fat guy.
There was reason to expect this would be good; Villeneuve is now widely regarded, and rightfully so, as a modern masterpiece maker, someone who in all twenty years of his working has yet to miss even once. That’s astonishing: of the people working today, only Edgar Wright can match that kind of spotless record (I’d say Scorsese too, but I have yet to see Boxcar Bertha and apparently that’s pretty bad). Here’s a guy who made a Blade Runner sequel that not only matched the original in terms of sheer iconography and authenticity of imagination, but actually fixed some key problems I’d always had with it.
So yeah, there was reason to expect this would be good. But I still came away impressed; this is an adaptation of a book that notoriously needs use of an appendix just to be somewhat comprehensible, and they’ve managed to turn it into a screenplay that works. Again, I’ve not had any prior experience in this world, and I was still able to keep up with all the talk of Baron Harkonnen and House Atreides and witches that make you put your hand in a box. Economy of information is one of this movie’s great strengths. We know everything we need for the story to work, and the details are present in the background. Not since the original Star Wars trilogy have I seen "grungy sci fi" this well thought out; it’s the future, and it’s holograms, but they don’t work super well and are kinda blurry. It’s grimy and lived-in, even more so than the already pretty depressing Blade Runner 2049.
Here’s another truly impressive thing; as has been widely reported, this adaptation only covers the first section of the book (again, I haven't read it, so I can't give specifics), with the rest of it set to come later. So basically, it’s a two and a half hour setup for another movie, and I didn’t mind. Seriously, what the fuck. This is the exact thing I've grown to despite about the modern movie landscape, with the domination of the MCU especially turning me against films that only exist to set up other film. But, when the credits rolled on this one, I didn’t feel stiffed. I felt like I’d gotten a complete, satisfying experience, despite it being unquestionably just part one. Incidentally, I saw this very soon after I saw Halloween Kills, and while I actually had a lot of fun with that flick, it was unquestionably hurt by the fact that it couldn’t actually conclude it’s own story. This, somehow, wasn’t.
There are so many things that shouldn’t work: it does the sci fi thing of no one talking like a regular human should. But somehow, the way it presented itself worked, and felt authentic to the world. It’s like LOTR; not what we conventionally think of as "good dialogue" or "good character arcs" or even any sort of conventional emotional beats, but it works, somehow. It bypasses your defenses. Villeneuve has marshaled this incredible text into something that feels grandiose yet accessible. Everything feels tangible, like a Miyazaki film; you can see the mechanics of how it all works, despite no one telling you. Those personalized shields might be the best sci fi visualization since...the hologram lady in Blade Runner 2049. Villeneuve got this shit on lock.
He's also working with a stacked cast, all of whom manage to make great impressions despite not doing much yet (Dave Bautista I'm especially looking forward to seeing what he does later, given how excellent he was in his five minutes of Blade Runner sequel). One more thing that I was surprised at how much I liked; Timothaaaaae Chalameeeeet. Like, I acknowledge that he’s a good actor, and I’ve liked him in things before, but I really wasn’t seeing how he’d mesh with the world. Well, shows what I know, ‘cause he fits in shockingly well with the vibe the movie’s going for. He's fay, and kind of aloof, but you definitely get a clear sense of where his head's at, and he's an engaging protagonist to be around.
Villeneuve was a modern masterpiece maker before this, and...yup, he has still yet to miss. My favorite is still Prisoners, because I am a thriller guy at heart, and of his sci fi works I probably do prefer Arrival, for its sneaky humanism but also because it has an ending (which is also its beginning, because of squidward. Long story). But this is a monumental achievement on the level of his Blade Runner sequel, a film that I’ll remind you came out the same year as Baby Driver, Get Out, You Were Never Really Here and Dunkirk, and stood toe to toe with all of them. I of course saw this on the Big Screen, and it was an experience; the sound design was astonishing, the sets were evocative, and the world truly felt expansive.
Villeneuve made some waves (though not as much as Scorsese) for his perfectly fine and correct opinions on the MCU, and given their prevalent pop culture dominance in recent years - and people’s growing exhaustion with them - it’s nice to see a director with such a clear grasp of Cinema. This at times has the cadence of an old Hollywood epic, like Lawrence of Arabia or Ben-Hur (you know, one of the deserty ones), both in its scope and running time, but how it chooses to spend that running time. This is a patient movie, unafraid to just sit in a location and let it bask. While the MCU exhausts audiences by refusing to sit still and constantly obsess over setting up new phases, spinoffs, whatever comes next next next, this movie - which, again, is very clearly just part one - finds its strength by existing in the moment.